Los Angeles Times
Thursday, October 23, 1997
A Lawmaker's Firsthand View of the Bilingual Issue
By GEORGE SKELTON
SACRAMENTO--Seared in Assemblywoman Martha Escutia's memory are the
cruel taunts she endured as a fourth-grader at Rowan Avenue Elementary
School in East L.A. "Kids called me 'wetback,' " she recalls.
"Mean-spirited kids. Mexican American kids. "Immigrant
kids suffer because of Mexican American kids. It seems once you get here,
you have a pull-the-plank mentality."
Escutia, now 40, really was not an immigrant
kid. She was born in Los Angeles. But by the fourth grade, she had lived
for two years in Mexico and had forgotten all her English. So she was treated
as a new immigrant by the other kids.
In the earliest grades, Martha each day had
gone from a Spanish-speaking home to an English-only school in East L.A.
"I did well picking up the [English] language," she says. "But
when I was about 8, my family said, 'My God, she's not learning Spanish
the proper way. She's learning English.' And they sent me to school in
Mexico City, where I was taught only in Spanish.
"I came back speaking only Spanish.
I remember very clearly sitting in classes not knowing a single word that
was being said. And it was an awful, awful feeling. And I will never forget
that. I went through a lot of suffering."
It lasted about six months. Fortunately,
she had a dedicated teacher who worked with her after school, speaking
in Spanish and translating back into English. "She unlocked my English,"
Escutia says. "I picked it up right away. I even skipped a grade."
And she went to USC and Georgetown University
and became a lawyer. And now she is an influential legislator--she heads
the Assembly Judiciary Committee--and represents Bell, where her grandfather
once worked in a steel mill, but couldn't live, Escutia says, "because
then it was whites-only."
Some might read into this American Dream
story a lesson: that the best way for non-English-speaking kids to learn
the language is to sink or swim--or, as it's variously called in the ed
biz, "total immersion" or "submersion." But Escutia
doesn't read it that way at all.
"I did well picking up language. Republicans
love to call me the model minority," the Democratic lawmaker says.
"But my sister and cousins had a very hard time. For every one of
me, there must be 10 who don't succeed."
She and the other Latino legislators still
believe there's a place for bilingual education in California schools,
although many are sharply critical of the present system--usually more
privately than they are publicly.
Escutia calls the current system "a
symbolic inheritance of the '60s," adding: "It's almost like
a sacred cow.
"The moment I started questioning people--saying,
'It's not working out, many parents are complaining to me their kids are
being put into bilingual classes just because of their names'--they started
putting me down. They'd look at me like I was kind of weird. They would
say I did not know enough about it. They'd look at me like true teachers,
a little bit condescending, like they know everything. I would say, 'I'm
sorry. You tell that to my [district's] parents. My parents are telling
me their kids are not learning English.' "
Who are they? "People who have a vested
interest, bilingual educators," she says.
"There's a perverse incentive to keep
kids in bilingual education because schools get more money from the federal
government. There ought to be a reverse incentive. Give more money for
mainstreaming kids out of bilingual education--but only if they can test
proficient in English."
And that's the rub for Escutia and other
lawmakers not willing to give up on bilingual education. They want more
testing, better teacher training, schools held responsible, and much less
time spent in bilingual classes.
But they already may have lost the war.
The so-called English for the Children initiative,
pushed by wealthy computer entrepreneur Ron Unz, would dismantle the present
bilingual system and replace it with something closer to sink or swim.
Enough signatures already have been collected to qualify the measure for
the June ballot, sponsors say. And a Times poll last week showed it being
supported by 80% of the voters.
Against that political reality, the Legislature--Democrats,
at least--will scramble in January to pass an alternative bill. Republicans,
however, may have lost any enthusiasm for compromise because they see a
political winner in the Unz initiative.
Escutia is one of several legislators trying
to negotiate. She's not the only Latino lawmaker who can tell a childhood
story about "language lockout." Each has an emotional tie to
bilingual education and will fight to preserve it.
But the Legislature again may have waited
too long to act.